Guest Feature

Daylight and Dark:
      Two Studies
Marcia Aldrich             

Marcia Aldrich teaches creative writing at Michigan State University, where she has also directed the creative writing program. She is the author of Girl Rearing: Memoir of a Girlhood Gone Astray, a collection of linked essays, published by W.W. Norton. She has had essays appear in The Best American Essays and been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. Her work has appeared in a wide range of literary magazines from The Seneca Review to Nerve. Last fall her essay “My Mother's Toenails” appeared in The Best of Brevity. She has just completed a second collection of essays titled Impromptu Mourner, from which she read here at Eastern on March 23rd. Dana Ringuette's introduction of Marcia Aldrich at the Eastern reading provides a thought-provoking framework for her writing:

“What's immediately evident for me in Marcia's work is her resistance to what writer & editor Robert Atwan has already noted as a certain “settled style” in creative or literary nonfiction. On perhaps a more affirmative side to that resistance: she continues to explore the ironic notes and voices possible within literary nonfiction. Girl Rearing, published in 1998, (but chapters began appearing in the early 90s), was way ahead of its time. So much so, I think, that her publisher, WW Norton, wasn't quite sure how to categorize and thus market it. In bookstores, the book often ended up in the memoir section. Not that it isn't memoir, but it isn't only that. It would have been, I think, much better suited to the “literature and fiction” section, along with works by Montaigne, Kafka maybe, and Camus perhaps, and maybe McCarthy, maybe Woolf. But such is the difficulty of doing, as William Carlos Williams noted, something really new: those of the “settled style” don't know what to do with you. But lucky for us, Marcia does know, and she is doing it.”


How You Heard the News That
He Had Taken His Life

© 2006 by Marcia Aldrich


t was late afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, and you were playing loud music—Born to Run—as you often do when you are in a flurry of cooking and cleaning for company. You find Springsteen naturally loud, but Richard had cranked up the volume. The speakers were good and the windows vibrated with the bass guitar.

Friends were driving up from Columbus the next day to spend Thanksgiving with you. You had just come home from the market, and Richard was putting groceries away. You had begun to clean when the phone rang. You barely heard it in the bedroom, vacuuming the new carpet installed during Joel’s visit in early October. Richard answered and disappeared into the basement to talk, away from the blaring music, for he hadn’t turned the music down before picking up the phone.

You continued vacuuming. You were in a cleaning reverie, thinking about dust, how it accumulates without your noticing. You came out of the bedroom into the living room and you saw Richard. You began to tell him about the shower, which you had remembered needed cleaning. The guitars and singing were very loud and he tried to say something—you remember his mouth moving—but you couldn’t hear him. He looked distraught, colorless, standing under the arched doorway to the living room and at the time you thought he was annoyed by the music, even though he had selected it and turned up the volume. He signaled that he was going to turn off the music, and you walked back into the bedroom, unaware that anything else was amiss.

When Richard returned, he said, “He did it.” At first, you didn’t catch on. "Who did what?" you asked. Your absorption in preparing for guests was complete and blocked out the undercurrents you had been feeling about Joel. You had forgotten about the package you received on Friday from Joel, with the odd assortment of items: commemorative spoons from the Chicago’s World Fair of 1933, a lapel button promoting literacy, and a thousand dollars wadded inside an egg coddler. The letter enclosed with these gifts was addressed only to you. It began “Dear Marcia” and ended “Love, Joel.” In between was an inventory of the contents. In all the years of friendship, Joel had never written a letter to just you or sent you a package. Sending the package with its disturbing contents wasn’t the only mysterious act Joel had performed that fall.

In late August he had called to say he was coming to visit. The call in August had differed from earlier vague plans in that Joel stated firmly that he was coming, but didn’t know exactly when. At the time you thought it a strange way to proceed. Generally speaking, when someone has a definite plan to travel, part of it includes a specific schedule.

During the same phone call, he announced that he was undertaking a major housecleaning, divesting himself of books and items he had kept since childhood, for who knows what purpose, binoculars, microscope, and what-not. He was getting rid of his computer and would rediscover the pleasures of handwriting. He had sent a list of his books and asked you to check off those you wanted him to bring along. He had spoken energetically about the purification ritual, the good effect of ridding himself of accumulated sundries. Your children were as close to family as he was going to get, and he wanted them to have his possessions—that was how he put it. You felt uneasy; something unspoken lay under these calm explanations, but you did not know what. No plan to change his life in other ways accompanied his renunciation of these goods. You questioned Richard about what Joel was up to and what it might mean. Richard said he saw nothing ominous in Joel’s behavior. But he too was uneasy. You pushed down your fears and resumed your engaged-elsewhere consciousness.

Joel did make his visit, in the first week of October. By the time he pulled into your driveway, the leaves were beginning to trickle down. After a quick embrace, he turned to his small station wagon, keen to move the items he had brought, as if the load were contraband that had to be quickly hidden inside the house. The rear of the car was filled with the computer and its peripherals, microscope, binoculars, television, and the agreed-upon books. All of the gifts were old, out of date, and nothing you especially wanted. You had accepted them because it seemed important to Joel that you do so. You hadn’t known how to refuse.

Driving across the country with a car full of belongings he wanted you to have wasn’t the end of his gift-giving. He wasn’t done giving you his things. After Joel returned to San Francisco, he sent two boxes of stamps, meant, you supposed, as a collection for your children. The boxes sat in your living room, just inside the door of the vestibule, for several days. Eventually Richard hauled them up to the attic, where the rest of what Joel had given you was stored.

But when you found the thousand dollars in the egg coddler, you blurted out, “He’s not going to kill himself, is he?” Richard’s response had been, “He wouldn’t do that to me.” Nevertheless he called Joel immediately, got his answering machine, and left a message. That was Friday, November 17. On Saturday Richard called again. The phone rang. There was no answer. There was no answering machine.

It was as if Joel had sent you a suicide intent scale all filled out and you couldn’t read it. Wouldn’t read it. Richard still believed that the letter addressed oddly to you meant something other than Joel’s suicide. He was in some sense deranged, his acts and their intention oblique. You did not understand the truth then. And you went back to your life. You just didn’t understand, then, that Joel was planning to die, and you didn’t understand when Richard tried to tell you on the afternoon of cleaning before Thanksgiving. Richard had to spell it out for you: “He killed himself. That was Joel's father on the phone.”

When you finally comprehended, when the truth finally penetrated your self-absorption, the news jolted you. This is how the news of death hits. It catches people when they are merrily engaged in some trivial but consuming daily task, baking or mowing the lawn or folding socks. You were vacuuming. No matter how long someone has been ill, no matter the signs of approaching death, or the intuitions of something awry, when the deed is done, the fact of it cannot be assimilated, taken in. You felt disbelief; you refused to believe that Joel was dead, that he had killed himself. Then you saw your normally composed husband overtaken by shock, grief, and recrimination. You held each other as couples do, the embrace we see all the time on news clips, the couple standing at the scene of tragedy. You stood outside yourself to see you holding your husband. You’d be holding him still if your son hadn’t come in and asked what was wrong. You couldn’t begin to answer; there were so many things wrong.

David, the youngest, just a boy of seven, was the one among you who accepted the news and tried to help you. He had stood by the bed where you collapsed, stroking your back. Your daughter was at basketball practice, would have to be picked up and told. You would have to figure out what to do about Thanksgiving. Even if your friends came and you cooked dinner as planned, things would not be as they were.

The conversation with Joel’s father had been brief. He had not had your phone number, and it had taken some days to locate it. He would have called sooner, he said. He had gotten your number from Richard’s parents. Joel's father did not tell him; Richard learned this when he tried to tell his mother about Joel’s death and discovered that she already knew. Joel’s body had been found Monday, and it was Wednesday, November 22, late afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving. Joel was dead; he had committed suicide. He had emptied his apartment completely, except for the telephone and the gun. He had rid himself of all his earthly belongings. Only then did Richard realize that Joel must have heard the message he left on his answering machine that Friday. That Joel was still alive when he called. Then he disposed of the answering machine and proceeded with his plan. That’s why the phone rang but no machine picked up for Richard’s subsequent calls.

In talking to Joel’s father, Richard concealed all the things Joel had given you because it was so obvious now what they meant. Joel had sent the police a typed letter, a key, a California driver’s license and a Department of Motor Vehicle change-of-address card. The letter, dated November 17, stated, “On or before Friday, November 17, I will have taken my own life using my .38 revolver.” Upon receiving the letter on Monday, the twentieth of November, the police went to his apartment and discovered the body that had been lying on the bathroom floor for three days.

It was an extremely cold night, the night of the afternoon you heard about Joel, the night before Thanksgiving. The temperature had suddenly plummeted. The snow looked enameled, a shade of blue under the full moon. Your daughter had to be picked up at basketball practice. You parked in front of the school and waited until the girls came out. All the parents sat in their parked cars, the motors running to keep warm. Exhaust poured out of the tailpipes, great blue flumes puffing in the dark. Girls began to emerge from the building, but no Clare. You waited. She was dallying, talking to friends, making plans, while you were sitting in a car in the cold, waiting, grief-stricken.

Sitting in front of the small school in your Midwestern town, you thought about what you saw and what you didn’t see. What you saw was people going about their lives like clockwork. Lives functioning, functioning lives. Clockwork. No skipped beats. No one suspended in time. No one poised in the in between. You did not see the man with the dead career staring blankly ahead. You did not see women unable to get out of bed or return home at the end of the day. Everyone was busy getting ready for Thanksgiving. Everyone was productive. No one was looking for a job and couldn’t find one. No one had been laid off or was too old to be hired. No one had taken a wrong turn from which there was no recovery. Despair, loneliness, and pain happened offstage, in the wings, behind heavy curtains. No one stood outside his house, unable to enter. If someone drove aimlessly about, not wanting to go home, you did not know about it. If divorce was discussed or financial disaster loomed, if jobs were dreaded, and children were crying themselves to sleep, you didn’t know about it. If suicide was being contemplated or planned or executed, clearly you didn’t know about it. You wouldn’t allow yourself to know, really know about it. Having come to this conclusion, a conclusion you would come to again and again thinking back to the day you heard, you couldn't bear the waiting any longer and sent David to get your daughter. They bounced down the school steps, side by side like shiny balls. You didn’t want to tell her. She wouldn’t want to know about his death, wouldn’t want his suicide to touch her. Not now when she was looking forward to your friends' visit and wouldn’t want to cancel it. Not ever. You knew you had to tell her before she saw her father. Her father lying at home in a darkened room with his head turned toward the wall. When she got in the car, she knew something was wrong. And you told her. Then you turned the car for home.


Woman on a Bridge

© 2006 by Marcia Aldrich


he starts at the bottom of the hill, at the far border where Route 29, a four-lane highway, washes by with fast cars. She passes over a cattle crossing on the narrow road that cuts up through meadows of uncut grass, knee-high, a pale wheat color ending in burgundy tips the color of stewed plums, like a prairie transplanted to Virginia, along the wire fence that divides the cow pasture from the meadow and runs parallel to the train tracks. Osage orange trees dot this fence line, and as the woman walks, oranges fall, not singly but simultaneously, with solid thumps, and then roll until they come to rest. A few lie broken open by squirrels, and the woman is surprised how thickly ruffled are the outer layers of the oranges, how soft and spongy the insides. On she walks up the hill, the muscles in the back of her legs tightening, her back aching to meet the rise. In the next field, a tractor mows. Something exhilarates her—to be out in broad daylight, in the open, at noon, yet unseen, as if by someone who no longer loves her. She feels that the earth beneath her feet is preparing for a change.

Two hawks hang in the blue above her. They seem to need no effort, their wings extended and still, tilting first to the right, and then to the left, as the wind currents twist them about. Then, after long minutes, they flap their wings, circle, and hang again. The effortlessness, however, is sham appearance. It takes considerable energy pulled from the air to keep the hawks aloft, presiding in crisp suspension over the field below. They patiently wait to see what the tractor disturbs with its mowing, to see what prey may be turned out of its shelter that they might strike and kill. The hawks and the woman keep at their vigilance, keep themselves up in a posture of readiness, necks slightly bent, eyes focused down and out, backs taut, hearts pumping as fast as the train rushing under the bridge.

That night she walks down the tree-shrouded road towards a patch of light, as if curtains were parting. In the dark no one is on the road. The sky is full of stars she has been missing. She walks to the middle of the bridge that crosses above the tracks, stops dead center over them, and faces eastward, from whence the Crescent will arrive just before eleven. She sees its light—a burning white powdery kind of light—before she sees the body of the train, before she hears it. It is fast then, coming towards her, parting the fields in two, both sides dark. A humid gust on her face, and she raises her arm and holds it outstretched, unsure if anyone is conducting who can see her in the dark above, in the middle of the bridge. When the Crescent rushes under, the whistle blows, and before she can count to three, it has passed under and long gone, a bullet of light.



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